Playing with the Past: Can Video Games Teach History?

The below was delivered as a talk as part of a panel on games and history eduction at the CUNY Games Conference 4.0 January 23, 2018.   

As most of us know the past three decades have seen an important evolution in video games and video gaming, taking them from a niche market and nerd culture oddity to an omnipresent form of mass media that has equaled and, in some cases, surpassed the film industry in popularity and global earnings. Many of the most popular games are set in historical eras, engage in historical narrative, or actively immerse players as historical figures. For many college-aged students, their first experience with history-based video games came through classroom experiences playing video games like "The Oregon Trail," a game based on the mass migration of thousands of Americans westward in the 1840s. First published in 1974 by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), it is still being played today and its popularity led to many other historically driven video games such as "The Yukon Trail," "Freedom!" and later "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego." Anyone who has spent any time in a history classroom, and many who have not, will know that these games have had a lasting impact on students' historical understanding and have shaped their understanding of those historical eras. In fact, a recent survey of my undergraduate students revealed nearly 75 percent of them became interested in the history degree because a video game they played in their past piqued their interest in a particular historical era. While anecdotal those numbers show how significant an impact video games have on our student's decisions. And this impact becomes more acute when one sees national statistics that reveal that nearly two-thirds of college students play video games on regular basis. Many dedicating more hours of their time to gaming than to their college studies.  Widely popular amongst those who regularly play are history-based games like the Assassin's Creed series, the Battlefield series, the recently released continuation of the Castle Wolfenstein series or games like Sid Miers Civilization, Red Dead Redemption, or even MMORPG's rooted in fantasy historical realms. While it is wonderful that these games bring students to history, they remain problematic. For the historian in the classroom and for our students, video games often lead to misguided interpretations that come from a less than critical reading of these sources. Our students are not equipped with the skills necessary to read video games critically and/or gauge their historical value. What my colleague and I who created an upper division course for our history majors titled, Playing the Past: Games as Historical Narrative, Public Memory, and Cultural Representations hope to do is to give students the ability to read these sources critically as historical primary sources introducing them to both their cultural meaning and their narrative biases, and to use video games and video game narrative writing as a pedagogical tool.

While the creation of this class seemed obvious to two of us who worked on it, we encountered quite a bit of resistance and pushback from many senior members of our department who saw video games as simply a frivolous diversion at best or a waste scholarly of time at worst.  As the class wended its way through our department and college curriculum committees we were surprised to find that we had to defend the significance of video games as cultural objects of study. One member of our department curriculum committee wrote that "Although the proposal looks thoughtful and thorough, [they] simply did not feel that this topic belongs in a history curriculum." Another said, "that the course does not appear to teach students how to apply historical methods using analysis to primary sources." Both of these critics and others did not recognize the games as valid cultural texts. Yet, in their simplest form video games are primary sources that help students and researchers alike, understand the latter half of the twentieth century. To dismiss them at that level was pure ignorance.  But even more amazing was the dismissal of games as cultural texts. Anyone who has played games recently, and maybe that's the issue, those in power to make these decisions are often ignorant of popular culture… But again, those of us who have played video games know that they reveal both explicit and implicit historical narratives.

The games themselves are encoded with historical memory and interpretation that are part of the same complex processes that bind more traditional sources to historical interpretation and public memory. Games often serve to confirm a popular historical narrative or offer simple solutions to complex social and political moments in time. This reductionist view can be seen in the plethora of World War Two first-person shooters, where players take the role of heroic defender of democracy and liberty, unquestioningly mowing down the enemy who has also been reduced to a caricature or stereotype.  The exceptionalist narrative of these games goes unchallenged. Players come away with an uncritical examination of the past that heralds the advances of western cultures, and men in manifest roles while casting women and traditionally marginalized peoples as passive and/or stereotypical historical actors. As historians, it is our job to engage with these sources and to give our students the critical tools to read and challenge them. The class we have created will spend sixteen weeks scaffolding a variety of skills and giving students the theoretical background to read these important historical texts more critically.  The will introduce them to independent titles and smaller publishers who have the freedom to challenge exceptionalist narratives and offer unique and interesting gameplay that place often marginalized characters in more historically active roles. In short, the use of video games as a tool to understand and interpret history, while not traditional, will provide students and scholars alike with a new set of tools that when combined with traditional historical and interdisciplinary methods offer a new window on the past.  

The interdisciplinary approach we take with the class reflects a growing body of work both in digital and traditional history that embraces novel approaches and enriches the body of interdisciplinary practices that are necessary for the broadening of the frontiers of historical research. To that end, the class borrows heavily from the history of film and critical film studies to provide a theoretical backbone to guide students' approach to video games. But the questions central to the study of film and history are not identical to those that should be asked of video games. Like, Henry Lowood and Raiford Guins who in "Debugging Game History: A Critical Lexicon," argue for a lexicon and new critical methods of inquiry in games history, our class hopes to create and give students a theoretical vocabulary that places games and games history into a broader historiographical context despite a dearth of games history secondary sources. As I said earlier, in their simplest form they are primary sources that help students and researchers understand the latter half of the twentieth century. In many ways, this work has yet to begin. Most games histories are still in their chronicling stages, written by enthusiasts or gaming journalist. Few historians have tackled serious games history, Monfort and Bogost's "Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, and Mathew Kapell and Andrew Elliot's "Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History are two that do a laudable job and will become with a few other texts the foundational secondary sources for the class and offer students starting framework. But will this framework or vocabulary be enough?

Games like more traditional primary sources are open to interpretation and questions, but they require another layer of analysis and the traditional history skills our students bring to the class prove inadequate to answer. The class will thus also provide students with a new set of skills to read these sources beyond the surface narratives and assumptions they make.  Games serve to reshape the historical narratives experienced by players, they are not passive like traditional historical texts. Instead, players influence the narrative through a series of in-game choices presenting researchers with interesting questions about interpretation, accuracy, cultural meaning, and authority. It is, then, the issue of representing history and the wider questions about how we interpret and give meaning to these representations in games that this class is about. As the class moves from theory and historiography, students will engage not only in the critical play of these games, but they will also learn to write their own history-based games. Initially, these games will be written in Twine or will be simply sketched out in storyboards and decision trees, backed up by character studies and historical context. Students will thus learn how history is manipulated to fit a game's narrative, how characters are bent to a narrative arch and how their decisions are made in game are often predetermined unlike the decisions real historical actors made in the past. In attempting to write gaming narratives rooted in traditional historical thinking skills, students will build their own historical vocabulary and skills that challenge the gaming experiences and prior knowledge they bring to the classroom.

Video games are an understudied yet ubiquitous form of historical exposure for young people today. Students not only need the critical skills for reading these sources, but they will also benefit from writing games, or at the very least the narrative frameworks for history-based games themselves.  Teaching students to engage in this form of mass culture and read it critically for both its historical accuracy and cultural meaning will provide them with essential analytical skills. Creating and writing their own historically framed games is an important step in their history education and offers a unique opportunity to further develop their media/digital literacy and real-world critical thinking skills.